The whirling dervish joyfully defies convention, whether it’s upending the traditions of Italian cooking or bringing pleasure into how we feed the hungry.
Credit…Bea De Giacomo
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ONE OF THE FIRST things you see inside the door of Massimo Bottura’s restaurant, Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, is a self-portrait of the artist Joseph Beuys posing like a stand-in for the Sundance Kid; the inscription at the bottom, in Italian, says, “We are the revolution.”
Bottura has been a force in a culinary revolution for years now, but not necessarily in a way that ignites sweeping movements. Chefs like Ferran Adrià and René Redzepi have influenced thousands of acolytes (and copycats), but Bottura’s handwork is of a more private and idiosyncratic strain: He cooks food that’s about Italy and family and history and memory and art, yes, but ultimately his eclectic platings and flavor combinations reflect the miasmic workings of his own mind.
When I meet Bottura — a bearded bespectacled electron in chef’s whites — everything starts happening immediately. There is no prelude, no gradual exchange of pleasantries before you arrive at the meat of the conversation. The meat is served right away. “The chef of the future has a very important sense of responsibility,” Bottura says suddenly, fervently, joyously. “The contemporary chef is much more than the sum of his recipes.”
I will eventually be invited to lunch — an epic box set of “The Best of Bottura,” plus a couple of new hit singles, with the chef providing detailed narration. There are lentils served in a caviar tin; and a dish of fillet of sole garlanded by edible silver-gray paper that has been made out of seawater; and one of his signature dishes, “Crunchy Part of the Lasagna,” which may amount to the most sophisticated manifestation of chips-and-dip ever created.
Bottura’s mind is like a butterfly net that swings to and fro in the hopes that a stray beauty will land in its mesh. Potential inspiration hovers everywhere. A dessert called “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart” arose from a moment, years back, when Takahiko Kondo, one of Bottura’s closest kitchen allies, accidentally smashed a sweet on the pastry counter. Bottura decided that it gave the dessert exactly what it had been needing. A dish called “An Eel Swimming Up the Po River” is somehow representative of a collision between an odd squabble in Italian history and Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s duet on “Girl From the North Country.”
Lunch ends with “Camouflage,” a dessert whose original bud of development in Bottura’s febrile mind goes back to a conversation between Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein — something he once read about. It is arranged on a plate in the colors of military garb, and made out of powdery and custardy layers of chocolate, spices, foie gras, red wine and the blood of a wild hare.
“Each bite is going to be different,” he tells me as I prepare to eat. “Pay attention.”
I’ve never tasted a dessert quite like it — nor have I ever had someone crossing-guard me along the way: “Stop, stop, stop!” Bottura says after my first bite. “At this point you need a little bit of coffee, no sugar, go!” He watches every motion of my mouth, as if he can see my mind and palate conflate.
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As I’m about to take the last bite he says, “It’s going to taste completely different than the rest.” Maybe I’m suggestible, but I can’t deny that a scenario unfolds as I finish — something like a Grimm’s fairy tale crossed with a trace of fudge brownie ice cream, a story about a boy running through the woods and tripping and tasting the forest floor, and returning to the comforts of his home.
When I say as much, feeling the description to be slightly insane, Bottura reacts as if that is exactly what was intended. “It evolved in three bites because of your mind,” he says excitedly. “It is your mind that is evolving.”
AS I WILL LEARN over the course of three days in Modena, the word “whirlwind” does not begin to describe Bottura. Corporations with an interest in fostering creative chaos could glean a lot from a field trip to this block of the Emilia-Romagna region; in fact, it makes sense that while I am visiting, representatives from Harvard Business School are passing through town, too, putting together a case study on how this small establishment on a cobblestoned corner of a medieval burg has managed to vault itself into the highest ranks of global cuisine — the very top, in fact, as of last spring, when Osteria Francescana became the No. 1 restaurant on the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
One of the first things the Ivy League scholars surely notice is that the restaurant only got global by remaining vigorously local. On a regular business day, Bottura and his Tasmanian Devil energy cloud are mostly confined to Via delle Rose, a passageway alongside the restaurant that has the feeling of an alley where dusty postwar kids would’ve lobbed a soccer ball around, which is what the cooks do when a shift ends. Rather than a gleaming state-of-the-art hub for its staff of 30, Osteria Francescana has a cramped network of kitchens occupying a scattershot orbit around it — think of an ant farm, or maybe Italy itself, awkwardly formed (after centuries of turmoil) from a coalition of neighboring city-states.
Bottura describes his cooking as “compressing passion into edible bites.” It’s much more than that, of course — more like a complicated, and at times contentious, conversation with not just the history of Italian cuisine, but the Italian relationship with food.
“Why is Italian food so good?” he asks. “These flavors are distilled by centuries of history.” Bottura returns again and again to the crumbly cheese and cured meat and pockets of pasta and drizzles of aged vinegar of Modena, where he was born. But he does so by re-engineering the perfected recipes of grandmothers, or nonnas. With signature dishes like the “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano” (in which the cheese is crackly and chewy and creamy and runny and foamy all at once), his cooking is both a love letter to his country and an overthrow of the rigidity that can hold it back.
Bottura, I will learn, has a complicated relationship with grandmothers, whose goddesslike power he both reveres and subverts. This point is illustrated moments later when he stops in the middle of conversation and says, “Oh! Nancy!” Ambling down Via delle Rose is Nancy Silverton, the influential Los Angeles chef, baker and restaurateur, who has a house in Umbria and who frequently drops into Bottura’s restaurant to see what he’s dreamed up. “So good, so good,” says Silverton, thanking him for lunch. Bottura mentions some customers who had expressed a quibble regarding a core component of his “Crunchy Part of the Lasagna.”
“The ragù is not as tasty as my grandmother’s,” he recalls one of them saying. “Can you imagine these guys?” He laughs.“I’m sorry that your grandmother had such bad taste.” This escalates into a comic takedown of grandmothers, with Silverton egging him on. What he’d really like to say to customers who invoke their beloved nonnas is not printable here. In a way, it qualifies as the ne plus ultra in Italian profanity, which is why Bottura would like to have it printed on a T-shirt.
“MODENA IS LITTLE winding streets and unexpected things that happen,” Bottura’s American-born wife, Lara Gilmore, is telling me. It’s a word I’ll hear a lot while I’m there: The unexpected is woven into the ebb and flow round the corner of Via Stella and Via delle Rose.
Consider how Osteria Francescana got its first Michelin star. Bottura opened his restaurant in 1995, and the early days were anxious; customers were scarce and critics were dismissive. In 2001, one of Italy’s most prominent food writers happened to get stuck in bad traffic between Milan and Rome and he stopped in for a meal. A rave review followed and within a year the restaurant had its first star. (It now has three.)
Consider, too, Bottura’s virtuoso improvisations in the kitchen, so rich with the unexpected and the element of surprise. In the same way a jazz musician lets the present moment tell him where he ought to go, Bottura rambles — purposefully — and then reacts. But unlike the Swiss-clockwork kitchen at, say, New York City’s esteemed Eleven Madison Park, where a photograph of Miles Davis looms as inspiration but the room itself remains as silent as a monastery, there is at Osteria Francescana a constant — and conscious — flow of clutter and funk: chefs in loose conversation, Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” blaring from speakers on one side of the alley and the Band’s “The Weight” blaring from the other. “It’s my energy,” Bottura explains. “We cannot live without music, without art.”
Should you visit his home, which he shares with Gilmore and one of their two children (the other is in college), it is a safe bet that he will brandish old 78s of classic jazz — Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday. Bottura spent a short time cooking in New York in the early 1990s, and he plays his records on a vintage hand-cranked Victrola that he bought for $150 on the streets of SoHo. “When you are obsessed, really obsessed …” he says, then trails off.
When Bottura talks about chefs having “a very important sense of responsibility,” he means it. If his cooking is a reflection of what lies inward, his personal mission has been moving in the opposite direction: outward. Revolution is on Bottura’s mind, and not only when it comes to upending the rules of gastronomy. In August, during the Olympics, he opened his Refettorio Gastromotiva in Rio de Janeiro, an ambitious project that involves enlisting talented chefs to turn food waste into delicious and nutritional meals for the poor.
Thirty years ago, a chef’s platform pretty much began and ended with the proper way to truss a chicken. Now, thanks to the explosion of fascination with all things food, star chefs like Bottura have seized the opportunity to convert fame into lasting impact, both social and environmental. René Redzepi, of Noma in Copenhagen, regularly summons the gastro-throng to the MAD Symposium, where attendees are exposed to current thinking on the issues of the day. Tom Colicchio, Dan Barber, Daniel Patterson, Roy Choi and Michel Nischan are all actively engaged with fighting hunger, promoting food education and spreading ideas of sustainability.
“Feed the planet. Feed the planet. Energy for life,” is Bottura’s mantra. And with Rio’s Refettorio (or dining hall, with antecedents in Milan and Bologna, and a dreamed-of future sibling in the Bronx), he is taking on world hunger in a classically Bottura-ish way. The key to the whole enterprise, he says, is “beauty. Through the beauty you can rebuild the soul.”
Later in the day, Bottura gets a call from David Hertz, the chef and social entrepreneur in Brazil with whom he’s collaborating in Rio. “The important thing is the mood, the energy that we bring to the neighborhood every night,” Bottura tells Hertz. To that end, top designers and artists were enlisted to build the Refettorio, providing the homeless and hungry with a place where loving attention has been paid to both the cooking and the physical space. “It’s going to change the dignity of the people,” he says.
Bottura’s goal with his souped-up soup kitchens is similar to his approach at Osteria Francescana, where he strives to keep his employees thinking expansively through exposure to music, art and even elegant home décor. (He and Gilmore own and rent an array of well-appointed apartments in Modena, which they provide to the Osteria team as subsidized housing.) “Look here,” he says at one point during my visit, leading me into a staff bathroom where the walls are papered with printouts of famous pieces by Picasso, Magritte, Duchamp. Whether it’s homeless families seeking a warm meal or cooks relieving themselves, Bottura wants people to come face-to-face with inspiration. “Cultural stimulation is the most important thing ever,” he says.
ONE MORNING IN Modena, I see a few of the men who work for Bottura hauling stuff into the street: bowls, pans, blenders, colanders, a Big Green Egg grill, a pair of Dutch wooden shoes — all of it piled on the sidewalk and the cobblestones. It looks like a tag sale, or maybe a very special episode of “Hoarders.” Bottura, darting through the clutter in a black T-shirt and jeans, appears to be looking for something.
“We are cleaning up,” he says. “We have so much stuff. You want to see something crazy?”
From the heap he extracts a device that looks like a huge bong, its wide-mouthed glass tube rising from a shiny metal base. “Today,” he says, “you’re going to breathe the fog of Parmigiano-Reggiano.” The device is a vaporizer. He wants me to inhale cheese into my lungs.
Naturally, this contraption has a somewhat surreal back-story. Bottura had been thinking about bridges — some gorgeous Santiago Calatrava structure — and how they become ribboned with fog. Bottura envisioned what might happen if, instead of fog, “every single person who drove over the bridge could breathe Parmigiano-Reggiano.” It sounds like the sort of art project Christo might undertake were he a three-Michelin-starred chef.
Bottura decided to test his theory by using the vaporizer he is now holding to exhale cheese. I am one of just a handful of people who have tried it. (Another was Kate Moss.)
He pours water into the machine and drops in a chunk of first-rate Parmigiano-Reggiano. The vaporizer starts bubbling like a witch’s kettle and a fragrant steam rises. Bottura directs me to place my lips at the tube’s opening. “Now breathe!” he says. “Breathe in the flavor!”
I inhale. It is arguably the most delicious breath I will ever take. Later that night, as I spend a good amount of time coughing up a funky residue, I realize why it was on the trash heap. Still, it is indicative of this man’s passion for Italian food, that he literally wants you to suck it into your chest cavity.
After my breath Bottura looks at me with a penetrating smile. “Keep your mind open,” he says. “Always keep a door open to the unexpected.”